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story.lead_photo.caption Former Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, speaks at the state Capitol on Tuesday as attendants including Dr. Sonny Tucker (far left), executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, look on. The convention has partnered with the Department of Correction and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tenn., to create an on-site seminary program at the Varner Unit that offers inmates the opportunity to earn a degree in Christian studies. - Photo by Francisca Jones

A partnership between the Arkansas State Baptist Convention, the Department of Correction and a Baptist seminary in Tennessee will make it possible for prison inmates to earn degrees in Christian studies, it was announced Tuesday at the state Capitol.

The Cordova, Tenn.,-based Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary will establish a new seminary program at the Varner Unit modeled after one used at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. The four-year program, geared toward moral rehabilitation, is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The Rev. Dubs Byers, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dumas, said the program will cost around $5,000 per student per year and that the program will be funded by private donations and without any state or taxpayer funds. Sonny Tucker, executive director for the Arkansas State Baptist Convention, said a "generous donation" from an anonymous donor helped get the program off the ground.

The on-site seminary will be among the latest in a growing effort among Southern Baptist-affiliated schools and organizations to offer inmates Christian education degrees at no cost in the formation of future "field ministers" who will work alongside chaplains. Many have life sentences, while those who serve their time will be able to continue in ministry as they re-establish themselves in society.

According to the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, 15 such programs are up and running in the United States, and 10 more are in the works. The seminary campus at the Varner Unit will commence classes in August. Greg Addison, associate executive director of the state Baptist Convention, said a few inmates have already expressed interest, and that students will be required to have a GED before beginning classes.

Former Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, said the move toward a seminary for inmates in Arkansas began after he made a trip to New Orleans to hear about prison reform.

"There was about 40 of us in the room, state legislators from all over the U.S.," Williams said, noting that he returned to Arkansas "with a fire in my heart."

Williams met with Burl Cain, who was warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for more than 20 years and helped start the evidence-based Christian educational program in Louisiana. A four-year study conducted by Baylor University determined that the program resulted in increased mental and emotional well-being among inmates, and a sense of purpose in life.

After retiring, Cain started Global Prison Seminaries Foundation to continue the work in other states.

Dexter Payne of the Arkansas Department of Correction thanked Williams and others for bringing the program to life, and said the department plans to have a team at the Varner Unit in place to assist students working toward their degrees.

"We want the inmates to be field ministers," said Payne, who said the department has found in its research on the program in other states that the education works well for prisons. "Once [students graduate] and assist us in caring for our population ... the Varner Unit's culture will change."

Mike Spradlin, president of Mid-America, said a combination of education and faith in Jesus Christ makes for a "winning combination."

"We realize that when you have a hurting heart and a helping hand and a willing mind that you can make an eternity's worth the difference in the lives of people," Spradlin said. "That's what we're about, is making an eternity's worth of difference."

"Everybody matters," Tucker said. "The Arkansas Baptists have a real heart for what we call the 'uns,' -- unreached, unengaged and underserved. There is this massive population in prison that really matters to God, and we think that we can minister to them."

Photo by Francisca Jones
Mike Spradlin (foreground), the president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee, and others join in a threepart prayer at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Religion on 05/04/2019

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